Poke salad (poke weed)
Southern United States
If you have to assign a Surgeon General’s warning to any of the culinary delights I’ve eaten, it is undoubtedly poke salad. Drugs.com lists some of the symptoms of “poke poisoning” as “severe stomach cramping, nausea with persistent diarrhea and vomiting, slow and difficult breathing, weakness, spasms, hypotension, severe convulsions, and death”. It’s the “death” part that can be a little intimidating, but people in the rural South have subsisted on it during lean times. Obviously this isn’t something you can get by waltzing into the Piggly Wiggly and making a beeline for the canned vegetables or the produce aisle. So what would make someone who enjoys being alive want to try this foreboding vegetable? Probably the same sense of adventure shared by those who try fugu, mixed with the survival instinct that kept the first person to eat a tarantula alive. It is said that even starving animals will avoid eating the plant – the only part of the plant deemed somewhat edible are the young, green leaves (once they start turning reddish it is too late to harvest).
My education about eating poke salad came from participating in a good friend’s annual family reunion in Hamilton, Alabama. It was at this time that an aunt showed me what the plant looked like and said if I picked it, she’d cook it. This was the one time that there seemed to be something more important to worry about while wandering through the woods than deer ticks and rattlesnakes. I gathered about 2 shopping bags filled with the leaves, which sounds like a lot, but her trained eye could spot the leaves that were too old to be safe. The preparation was simple – the leaves were boiled, and then rinsed. Then boiled and rinsed. Then boiled and rinsed. Finally in a well-seasoned iron skillet, some small chunks of bacon were cooked down for the fat, and then the pokeweed was added with some eggs, onions and a little pepper and salt. To the casual observer this could have been spinach, but the first bite lets you know otherwise. The consistency was like spinach, but there was a pleasant but bitter bite to it. A word of caution – the bacon left in the pan seems to absorb the bitterness, making it extremely foul tasting. Was it good? Delicious! Was I worried? No, in the capable hands of an expert it was safe enough to have offered it to my mom. My parting words on poke salad – kids, don’t try this at home.